What Rough Beast: Joan Didion for Boys

I came to Joan Didion late. As a teenage boy in the 1970s, the titans of so-called New Journalism who grabbed me were Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, and their Beat Generation predecessors like Kerouac and Burroughs—the usual suspects. I’d encountered Didion in excerpts from The White Album and Salvador, but I was a grown-ass man before I began to really read and appreciate her in earnest. My loss. 

Those male writers fit the adolescent model that seemed tailor made for guys like me. But Joan Didion’s work was sneakier, subtler, and darker. Yes, darker than Hunter Thompson and William S. Burroughs, even though I’m not aware that she ever pulled a gun on anyone, much less the trigger. As I say, it took me a while to mature enough to appreciate it.  

(The 2017 documentary The Center Will Not Hold by her nephew-in-law Griffin Dunne is a good introduction to his aunt, both benefitting and suffering from being an insider account.)

People love Joan Didion the way they love Joni Mitchell, another California icon, transplanted though she is: as an artist with a dazzling and absolute mastery of her craft, whose work feels incredibly personal, as if directed individually at them. Like those male authors, she is an unmistakably American writer; what could be more American than drinking an ice-cold Coca-Cola for breakfast every morning? Her influence is towering, yet still underestimated; to mangle Eno’s famous comment about the Velvet Underground, it seemed like everyone who read her work went out and applied to a journalism or MFA Creative Writing program.

As a reporter, Didion’s talent for zeroing in on the crucial elements of any given topic and neatly dissecting them for the reader in eyepoppingly stylish prose was a match for Wolfe’s. Her writing on the Central Park Five—Six, originally, and now known more properly  known as the Exonerated Five—presciently looked ahead to contemporary battles over racism and the criminal justice system. (It especially resonated with my wife, who as a young documentary photographer had known and worked with one of the wrongly accused young men.)

As a screenwriter myself, I was also taken by Joan’s journalism about that part of her career. (I will include in that grouping her husband’s 1997 book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, which recounts their travails in scripting the 1996 Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer movie Up Close and Personal, which featured some real life characters I had dealt with myself at close range.) Certainly no one has captured the faux goodwill and passive-aggressiveness of contemporary Hollywood as well as she did when she wrote, in a piece called “Good Citizens,” from The White Album:“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”

Didion’s writing about her home state, far beyond just Hollywood, remains some of her best work, IMHO, as well as some of her most celebrated. That too struck a chord with me, as an almost accidental transplant to the state, decades behind previous generations of westward-bound searchers, and one who fell in love with it. Even now I retain a strong vestigial attachment to the Bear Republic, which takes a back seat to no state, not even Texas, in seeing itself as its own sovereign country. Few have captured the California myth better than Joan.

She can be forgiven for her admiration for the Doors, as I hope I will be. (The teenage years are hard and confusing.)

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, AND BACK AGAIN

I was well into adulthood before I discovered Joan’s writing about Hawaii. As it happened, the time she spent in the islands coincided almost exactly with the period I lived there as a teenager. Reading her stories for the first time, I was astonished at how perfectly she captured the place—from the perspective of a visiting haole, anyway—not only Honolulu, familiar to tourists, but unfashionable parts of Oahu like the Army post where my family lived in the late ‘70s, Schofield Barracks:

I have never seen a postcard of Hawaii that featured Schofield Barracks. Schofield is off the track, off the tour, hard by the shadowy pools of the Wahiawa Reservoir, and to leave Honolulu and drive inland to Schofield is to sense a clouding of the atmosphere, a darkening of the color range. The translucent pastels of the famous coast give way to the opaque greens of interior Oahu. Crushed white coral gives way to red dirt, sugar dirt, deep red laterite soil that crumbles soft in the hand and films over grass and boots and hubcaps. Clouds mass over the Waianae Range. Cane fires smoke on the horizon and rain falls fitfully. BUY SOME COLLARD GREENS, reads a sign on a weathered frame grocery in Wahiawa, just across the two-lane bridge from the Schofield gate. MASSAGE PARLOR, “CHECKS CASHED, 50TH STATE POOLROOM, HAPPY HOUR, CASH FOR CARS. Schofield Loan. Schofield Pawn. Schofield Sands Motor Lodge.

If my fourteen-year-old self had known Joan Didion was prowling around post, he would have been starstruck, if my fourteen year old self had known who Joan Didion was. (I was more consumed at the time with the likes of Gerry Lopez.)

She goes on to describe other places, like the red light district of Hotel Street, where I changed buses on my commute to 9th grade in Honolulu (on those days when the carpool wasn’t running, I feel compelled to say, at the risk of chipping away at my street cred). 

(I)t was in this sombre focus that I last saw Schofield, one Monday during that June. It had rained in the morning and the smell of eucalyptus was sharp in the air and I had again that familiar sense of having left the bright coast and entered a darker country. The black outline of the Waianae Range seemed obscurely oppressive. A foursome on the post golf course seemed to have been playing since 1940, and to be doomed to continue. A soldier in fatigues appeared to be trimming a bougainvillea hedge, swinging at it with a scythe, but his movements were hypnotically slowed, and the scythe never quite touched the hedge. Around the tropical frame bungalows where the families of Schofield officers have always lived there was an occasional tricycle but no child, no wife, no sign of life but one: a Yorkshire terrier yapping on the lawn of a colonel’s bungalow. As it happens I have spent time around Army posts in the role of an officer’s child, have even played with lap dogs on the lawns of colonels’ quarters, but I saw this Yorkshire with Prewitt’s eyes, and I hated it.

I….had lunch with my hosts at the Aloha Lightning NCO Club and was shown the regimental trophies and studied the portraits of commanding officers in every corridor I walked down. Unlike the golden children in the Honolulu bookstores these men I met at Schofield, these men in green fatigues, all knew exactly who James Jones was and what he had written and even where he had slept and eaten and probably gotten drunk during the three years he spent at Schofield. They recalled the incidents and locations of From Here to Eternity in minute detail. They anticipated those places that I would of course want to see: D Quad, the old stockade, the stone quarry, Kolekole Pass. 

It was in one of those bungalows that we lived at precisely that time (though we only had a mutt—a poi dog, in local parlance—not a Yorkie). D Quad was my father’s; his portrait was one of those commanding officers she studied; and one of the regimental trophies of which she speaks was a silver punchbowl his predecessors in that regiment—the 14th Infantry “Golden Dragons”—had brought back from the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the 19th century.

She writes of “barracks rats” who were “erasing Army hatred by indulging in smoke or drink or listening to Peter Frampton at eighty decibels.” The quads where those GIs lived were right across the street from our house, and I can tell you that in terms of the volume of the music blasting out from behind windows typically adorned with tinfoil in lieu of curtains (soldiers are very resourceful), 80 dBs is generous, though in my memory it was “Go Your Own Way” or “Trampled Under Foot” or “Brick House.” 

I was still reeling from that shock of recognition when I came upon her description of a commemorative screening of From Here to Eternity at Schofield (where much of it was set and had been filmed) in 1977, and realized I had been at that screening, in the company of my father. 

(E)veryone to whom I spoke at Schofield had turned out for this screening. Many of these men were careful to qualify their obvious attachment to James Jones’s view of their life by pointing out that the Army had changed. Others did not mention the change. One, a young man who had re-upped once and now wanted out, mentioned that it had not changed at all. We were standing on the lawn in D Quad, Jones’s quad, Robert E. Lee Prewitt’s quad, and I was watching the idle movement around the square, a couple of soldiers dropping a basketball through a hoop, another cleaning an M-16, a desultory argument at the Dutch door of the supply room—when he volunteered a certain inchoate dissatisfaction with his six years in the 25th Division. “I read this book From Here to Eternity,” he said, “and they still got the same little games around here.”

DISSENT

For my part, I’ll apologize halfheartedly for writing about Didion from such a solipsistic point of view, but only halfheartedly, because New Journalism had already broken the rules and put the reporter—not the putative subject—at the center of the story, and because her writing was so piercing that its impact was hugely personal for the reader. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The acclaim for Ms. Didion is not universal, of course. Take Tom Carson, formerly of Esquire, a brilliant writer and stylist in his own right (see Gilligan’s Wake), who has written of her carefully calculated public persona, and the disingenuous pose (my words) that showcases “her fragility in a sentence(s)…about as hesitant as a fighter plane.” ”Few writers,” Carson writes, “so happily stack the deck while pretending they’re just passive receptors of the cards they’ve been dealt.” He also makes the point that Didion actually was more appealing to a male audience than a female one.

All fair enough. All my literary heroes inspire strong passions and legions both of champions and detractors, except Robert McCloskey. Even those detractors admit Didion’s vast influence on postwar American letters. Revisionists gonna revise.

For me, coming to her work late in life was a revelation, one that sent me circling back to earlier times in my own life, allowing me to relive them with an adult perspective, and affording me an appreciation for prose that I was too callow to reckon with at the time. Lucky me I got a mulligan. 

I’ll sign off by turning it over to the woman herself, who wrote these prophetic words way back in 1968, in Slouching Toward Bethlehem:

Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, thing have gotten done. But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with “morality.” Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.

May she rest in peace and her legacy linger. 

******* 

Photo: Joan Didion in 1972, by Jill Krementz

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